Sunset in a Senegalese Village

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why Howard University and HBCUs are critical to the Diaspora and must Survive

HU GEAR-UP student working on Wind turbine model

I have just returned from three weeks of research in Senegal, West Africa.  Upon leaving, stories in the media about the state of Howard erupted.  While I am sure that I can find a job at another university were HU to close, that would only be a small part of the a much greater loss.  This is because I would not be in Dakar, Senegal working on air quality, climate change and the linkages to health were it not for a a Historically Black College - Lincoln University in PA.

You see, I am not part of some legacy whose image comes black and white TV.  No I am the legacy of those parents who migrated north to Philly for a better life, and for a short while it seem possible.  But the same racism that they escaped from in the south, took a different disguise in the north leading to segregation , decaying public schools, housing, increased crime and drugs and eventually the urban nightmare for many black folks living in project developments.  My brothers and sisters was raised with the dream of going to "college" and all 6 of us eventually did.  But as always, the devil is in the details.

For me, my professors at Lincoln University were my guardians (as my parents had passed on beyond this life by 11th grade) and helped to get me back on track after being a "ship with sails that was lost with no wind and no direction."  Not only did they inspire me as role models (African American professors - teaching Quantum Physics, thermodynamics, mathematical physics) but they told me that I could achieve because they could see the gifts within me that I could not.  At any rate, I decided in my Junior year that I would study drought in West Africa.  I saw a program on PBS NOVA which discussed the causes of the multi-year drought in West Africa and the story begins.  27 years later I find myself under the swelter sun with students from Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD) and Howard University putting up a meteorological tower getting sunburned, pondering how to build the climate network in Senegal and Africa in general.

I have been coming to Senegal consistently for the last 10 years for research projects, but I always include Goree Island as the annual visit.   When I bring students, they must come also.  This year had a different twist.  Because I went with 7 Howard University Students.  Four were from the Gear-UP STEM program and the three students that I brought.  In sum a powerful group of science and engineering students (2 chemistry majors,  1 double chemistry/biology major, 1 chemical engineering major, 1 mechanical engineering major , 1 civil engineering major, 1 physics major).

 As we were there, we realized that paradox of being at Goree and being part of Howard U or any HBCU.  It was the wicked institution of slavery that produced deep scars within black people throughout America and diaspora and it HBCU that worked to heal partially some of the scars.  Going to Goree is more than a reminder of what happened for 3 to 4 hundred years, it is also whispers and screams of our continued responsibility to the disenfranchised, the hopeless and to future generations.  Because we know that when we visit Goree, that we have been given that unique moment because of at least 1 ancestor who carried the seed of hope, strength, tenacity and life so that we may fulfill our purpose every single day.

HU Student V. Cooper at the Door of No Return

The problems that Black people face from Washington DC to Port Au Prince Haiti, or Guinee Conakry can be addressed by HBCU which bring a deep-time historical perspective for solving these problems.  I for one do not think that they should be close, but rather transformed and further enabled to help address the problems of the 21st century.  Yes the curriculum must be revamped for partaking relevant conversations of these times.  Students must be armed to provide solutions to address: food security, renewable energy, sustainable economies, the environment and climate change, poverty alleviation, globalization, public policy, global health and health disparities.  But they must also understand social responsibility, ethics and culture and feel humanity in their soul.  I feel this at HU.

Over the last, three weeks, I took a different spin and began working with the microbiology lab and hospitals in Senegal.   I have a very keen research interest in Saharan dust, where more than a trillion lbs leave Africa each year.  This dust can impact climate, hurricane strength (both positively and negatively), atmospheric chemistry (production of Nitrous Oxide, heterogeneous chemical reactions), air traffic   and most importantly human health.  It is a major cause of respiratory disease and linked to Meningitis in West Africa.  Since 2012, we have observed a different flow pattern coming into Senegal from Western Sahara and Morocco.   The ceilometer observations show that small dust particles are trapped between the ground and approximately 1500 ft.  So while looking up the sky looks blue, but look horizontally and you can see the dust haze.  

Dust Haze over Downtown Dakar, June 26, 2013 when President Obama Arrives
We believe that the size of the dust particles are between 1-2 microns and by comparison a typical hair strand is 10 to 100 times larger.  These small dust particles can get past the hair in your nose and make it to your respiratory system.  So we went to roof of the lab and took dust samples off our solar panels since it is slowly falling by gravity.   We were interested in the types of bacteria on the dust and the types of gases that the dust produced.  We were also interested to know if meningococcal bacteria was on the dust, since we are breathing this in every day.

Results:  Lots of Bacteria on the dust.
Bacteria growth from Collected Dust Particles

Gas such as hydrogen Sulfide and Nitrogen are being emitted by bacteria on the dust (Yeah!! it is a working hypothesis that I have had for the last couple of years for observed ozone spikes).

Good News:  No Meningococcal bacteria was found on the dust samples.

I ended this research trip with a visit  to the hospital to talk to one of the doctors in infectious diseases.  I wanted to know there were Meningitis outbreak in 2012 based on the anomalous flow that we observed.  The answer was yes.  In fact during the Spring and early summer of 2012, there were nearly 1000 suspected cased of Meningitis in Senegal.  It was just below the epidemic stages.  But here is the kicker.... It is a new strain of meningitis... W135.  The population has not been vaccinated from it.

So here is my working hypothesis... The new strain is coming on the dust particles from Western Sahara and being carried down the coast by anomalous flow.  The events are coming in pulses, weakening the respiratory system making people susceptible to Meningitis-W135.   With the rainy season approaching the risks should go down.  However, next out.

We at HU will be working on a early warning system with our colleagues in Senegal using models, observations in real-time and analyzing dust each month along with our connections to the public health system.    While my original intention was related only to the physical sciences, it has now evolved into the social and human systems.

The night that I left Senegal, I call to say goodbye to my friend Mariama whose daughter Adja is 18 months.

The problem is that she could barely breath.  The asthma had caught up to her again.  While she has medicine it does not seem effective with all of the dust in the environment.  Sometimes she has not had the money to by the medicine.  So the task in my mind are very clear:  (1) help to protect the present population from weather hazards such as dust, flooding; (2) protect future (Adja) populations from climate change which will likely have a very negative effect on the projected billion plus population in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050. 

In summary, HBCUs are critically needed to help address local and global issues.  We need our administration to be accountable, responsible, forward looking and helping to produce today and tomorrow's scholars (students and faculty).  This is not a question of being like a Ivy league, Pac-10 or Big 10 school.  It is about education and addressing societal needs taking into account the perspectives of race globally and getting to work.  There is a place for everyone at this dinner table.    

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